There’s no shortage of tech companies ready to promise the world to journalists in the form of the Next Great Tool.
Separating the spoons from the sporks could be someone’s full-time job. And actually, it is — mine.
I’ve been Poynter’s digital tools reporter for a year and a half, publishing news about journalism technology and training reporters from all around the world. Every Monday, I send a curated newsletter of seven or so tools, tips and tech trends directly to the email inboxes of nearly 10,000 people. In the five years before that, I built online training about tools for journalists and just about every other ink-stained topic you could imagine.
All this to say, I’ve sorted through plenty of purported industry saviors, time-savers and life-changers so you don’t have to. Here are the tools that I liked the most this year.
Google Dataset Search / free / website
This beta from the search giant collates data sources all over the internet and makes them searchable in the ways that Google does best. For instance, you can search for data from a specific site by entering “site:” followed by a URL or hunt for exact terms by searching for them in quotation marks. Along with links to the results, the tool also shows the datasets’ publication dates, who provides them, authors and descriptions. Plenty of other tools collect and share datasets, but Google is the only one that pulls them together so conveniently.
Headliner / free / website
Serial exploded the podcasting world four years ago. Since then, powerful audio storytelling from NPR, Gimlet, This American Life and other companies has propelled podcasts out of obscurity to the forefront of the media industry. So why is it the case that none of the major social networks natively support audio? Headliner solves that problem by making it exceedingly easy to turn any audio clip under 10 minutes into a video. Upload some audio and Headliner generates a waveform. Slap an image behind it and you have a social-ready audio clip in just a few minutes. The best part? They don’t charge a dime for it.
Currents / free / website
Imagine being able to see what topics were performing best not only on all of your competitors’ news sites, but every news site around the world (or at least every news site that uses one particular real-time analytics tool). Then imagine being able to tell the major traffic sources for those stories, what keywords people were using to find them and how that topic has historically performed. Then stop imagining, because that’s what Parsely Currents does. And that’s only a taste of the information it offers.
Account Analysis / free / website
It’s reasonable to be skeptical of, and maybe even cynical about, your fellow Twitter users these days. When someone I don’t know tweets at me, I find myself first wondering if it’s a bot, or a foreign agent or some type of professional troll. If the answer appears to be yes, I turn to Account Analysis to check it out. The tool provides a series of analytics about a Twitter user, like when they most often tweet, who they tweet at and the top URLs they tend to share. If you’re most often tweeting at 3 a.m. and sharing articles from notarussianspy.com, you’re not getting an answer from me.
Toby / free / browser plugin
After years of flipping between Google Docs, Chrome bookmarks and just leaving every page open until my browser crashed, I found a bookmark manager that I somehow didn’t realize I needed so badly. It’s fair to say that Toby has vastly improved my average workday this year. A master of excess, I used to have dozens of browser tabs open across three browsers in multiple windows. Now I just drop all of my links into collections with two clicks and access them when I need them. The only issue with Toby is that it’s only available for Chrome. Start.Me is a similar tool for other browsers.
Descript / various pricing plans / software
Descript, a tool that in the past I’ve called “magic” is a complete game-changer for editors of podcasts and short-form videos. Descript automatically transcribes uploaded audio and video files. When you edit the resulting text, the audio or video file is automatically edited to reflect that change. Descript points out bits of dead air, which users can then shorten or eliminate with a click or two. I can’t imagine ever going back and editing podcasts the old way.
Privacy Badger / free / browser plugin
Privacy Badger is your force field against invisible threats on the internet. Install the plugin on your Chrome, Firefox or Opera browsers on your computer or Firefox on your Android device and Privacy Badger will block advertisers and third-party trackers from monitoring where you go and what you look at online. It’s easier to set up than a typical ad blocker and, since it was created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it doesn’t cost a cent.
Otter / free for up to 600 minutes / app and website
A little over a year ago, I rounded up the most popular automatic transcription tools, which turn recorded audio into text, and put them through the ringer. Then Otter came along and released a more accurate and less expensive tool a few months later. There’s not much to dislike about it. Otter automatically transcribes audio in real time (and supplies an even more accurate transcript later). There’s an app and a website version. Sharing audio and transcriptions is a breeze. Oh, and with 600 minutes free every month, you probably won’t ever pay for it. We live in the future.
Nudge / free / browser plugin
The internet is good — you’re reading this! But the internet is bad — you probably have Facebook open somewhere and have already spent an hour on it today. Take control of those addictive sites with Nudge, a Chrome plugin that makes it harder to waste hours on “addictive content.” The tool makes you work a little to open a website you deem addictive and will gently remind you with visual cues that you’ve spent too much time on it. It also blocks bits and pieces of sites, like YouTube’s related videos, that are designed to suck you in. If you’re so inclined, you can also delete your entire Facebook News Feed with one click. I’d call that a strong deterrent.
Lastpass / $2 per month / app, browser plugin and website
This wouldn’t be a very good list without at least one information security tool. Lastpass (and other password management ilk like Dashlane and 1Password) is the most important and impactful online tool from the last few years. No more using the same password across every website. No more forgetting passwords and having to reset them. No more little pieces of paper pinned to the wall near your desk. Just sweet, sweet secure and automatically generated passwords that are available at the click of a button. When you can be safer online and lazier at the same time for the price of a cheap cup of coffee every month, there’s no excuse not to do it.
Still looking for more? Here are 10 other things you should bookmark or share with a friend.
- Digital Women Leaders — Are you a female-identifying person in journalism? Sign up for free mentoring from one of dozens of brilliant women in our industry.
- Should I Do This Project? — It can be a struggle to decide whether to take on a new project, either personal or in the workplace. This flowchart takes seconds to complete but can save you days of time spent on a bad project.
- Just Not Sorry — This Chrome extension highlights the self-defeating language — “I’m sorry,” “I think,” “I’m no expert” — that you might be using when you send a Gmail.
- Hunter.io — The first place I go when I’m trying to find someone’s email address. Type in the URL of the company of the person you’re searching for and, if hunter.io doesn’t already know it, it’ll make a weirdly accurate guess based on the most common email patterns for that company.
- I Feel Like Shit — Feeling bad? Not sure why? Here’s another flowchart that will clear that problem up in a jiffy.
- CityMapper — As far as I’m concerned, CityMapper is the only tool you need to find your way around a major city. Just bring an extra battery.
- Email Debt Forgiveness Day — Every year, a couple dozen emails get perpetually clogged in my inbox. And then I feel bad every time I see the red circle on my email app. But, if they’re still there on April 30, it’s time to let them go.
- Conscious Style Guide — Culture and language can change in an instant, but the books and references that guide our work take time to catch up. If you’re looking for more inclusive and empowering terms than the ones you might find in your normal style guide, this one is your saving grace.
- Skyscanner — Take a vacation. No, really. It’s good for you and everyone around you. If you’re on a journalist’s budget, Skyscanner is your friend. Pick a travel location and Skyscanner will find the cheapest month and days to fly there.
- Coffitivity — I’m always more productive at a coffee shop than at my desk. I always thought it was the fancy third-wave beans I buy, but this tool made me realize otherwise. It’s just the gentle noises of the coffee shop itself.